The Honourable Henry Thynn was born on December 30, 2016. His father was Lord Weymouth, but Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, did not give birth. That duty went to an unnamed American lady who, for a consideration, undertook to carry the baby to term. Apparently US laws on surrogacy are more secure than ours. I am not concerned here with the morality of such an arrangement but rather with the situation of any married woman for whom a pregnancy would be medically dangerous.

Lady Weymouth, 30 years old, has a rare condition called hypophysitis. It is a complex condition which had caused difficulties with her first pregnancy, and could seriously threaten her life if she had a second one. But for my purposes her condition stands in place of many commoner conditions which foresee dangers in pregnancy. I think in particular of a close friend who, after four children, was told that she should have no more because of her increasing tendency to blood-clotting. She was 32. It must have been a difficult decision.

If we stand back from Catholic moral theology, we might think that the choice would be sterilisation. I know that, in the case of my friends, the couple considered this since they were faced with an imperative to avoid a conception. Their other possible choices were to use completely safe methods of contraception, or to cease marital congress for some 20 years and the arrival of menopause. They rejected contraception as the best approach, not only for aesthetic reasons but also because the degree of danger, through faulty methodology or practice, was too high a risk when failure would mean the threat of maternal death.

Would this couple be better advised to reject refraining from marital congress? There was a time when the Church believed, and Augustine taught, that the sexual aspects of marriage were regrettable and only justified by the need for reproduction. It was taught that although marital congress, being ordered by God, could not itself be condemned provided there was explicit intention to reproduce, it was effectively impossible to partake without being guilty of at least venial sins of lust. This teaching was never seriously questioned until the late 19th century, but step by reluctant step the establishment has gradually accepted that, notwithstanding the obvious perils of lust, a married couple having a fine time in bed is a good thing.

We now understand that marital congress is at the centre of the intimacy which draws the couple together, completing and maintaining the concept of two into one flesh which Adam and Eve first expressed. And science complements this by noting the hormone release which itself draws the couple together. Of course there are times, even long times, when congress must be eschewed; these must be borne with supportive love. But to opt, as my friend might, to refrain for some 20 years would be a hazardous choice, and inconsistent with the relationship of marriage.

So we might expect them to choose sterilisation. I don’t suppose they were much concerned with Catholic moral theology. But in our circumstances, Catechism in hand, we should be. It is of course permitted to remove damaged organisms for the good of the body. But to, for instance, ligate healthy fallopian tubes in order to achieve permanent sterility is gravely wrong, irrespective of reasons. It comes under the condemnation of “mutilation”. Humanae Vitae confirms this prohibition “whether of the man or the woman”. Vasectomy for the husband would be a permanent loss of function – which he might require were he widowed and remarried. But it is harder to see why my friend’s fertility is of value to her life or her marriage when she must never use it.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection